Monday, March 31, 2008

Homily: John Donne [March 31, 2008]

Although I believe deeply in the Resurrection, most of the Easter sermons I have heard over the course of a lifetime in the church fail to convince me of much of anything. And I think they fail because, frankly, preachers are most comfortable talking about the Resurrection as an abstraction. They quail in the face of discussing risen life in its particulars. This is strange, because, as John Dominic Crossan reminds us, the Resurrection of Jesus was about something particular. As he so ably puts it, the Resurrection of Jesus was God’s “In your face, Caesar!” in response to a political execution. In raising Jesus, God did not act in some sort of “returning Spring nature renewal hopping bunny and budding flower” affirmation of a vague and general “new life”. In raising Jesus God raised some particular One–Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who made community with other human beings, whose life gave the lie to Empire and all its pretensions.
So when we come back together after Easter Week and Spring Break, the questions which dogged us during Lent have not evaporated with our celebration of Easter. Empires–Rome and its pretensions in the 1st century, America and its pretensions in the 21st–continue to perplex. In raising Jesus, God has said “In your face, Caesar!” to all human assertions of power, even ecclesiastical ones. What does that kind of understanding of Easter have to say to you and me? And what on earth might it have to do with the great 17th century priest, poet, and preacher John Donne, whom we remember today?
I started thinking about John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of Jesus as I reflected yesterday on this morning’s Gospel. You may remember that Crossan talks a lot in his scholarship about the sociology of the early Christian community which gathered around Jesus, and his term for the economic group from which Jesus came is the “artisanal class”. As a carpenter, Jesus was not exactly a peasant, but he wasn’t a master craftsman, either. He was more like a skilled laborer–someone who has pretty much disappeared from today’s first-world economy. In his day Jesus would have served an apprenticeship either with his father or in the shop of another skilled laborer. So it is very interesting, in that light, to hear Jesus say this about his relationship with God:

Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. –John 5.19-20

In this passage, Jesus uses the language of apprenticeship to connect his own work with the work of his Father: of all the many figures we might use to describe Jesus’s life, the best is to see it as like an apprenticeship in a carpenter’s shop. Jesus has worked along side his Father as he has gone about spreading light in darkness, healing amid sickness, justice and mercy among the oppressed and aggrieved. He can claim to speak for God, then, because he has spent his life doing “what he sees the Father doing.” Jesus’s life has been an apprenticeship in godliness. He and the Father have been working side by side from his Baptism to the Cross. And Easter, the empty tomb, takes that relationship one step further. It opens it up to us.
And that, it seems to me, is what Resurrection is specifically, particularly, about. It proclaims the particularity of that apprentice relationship which Jesus enjoyed with his Father being open in the here and now to you and me. For God to say “Yes!” to Jesus and “In your face!” to Caesar is to validate a specific, particular, achievable style of life for you and me. The resurrection of Jesus is, specifically, a call for each one of us to say “No” to the pretensions of Empire, wherever and however they assert themselves in our lives. The resurrection of Jesus is, specifically, a call for each one of us to say “Yes” to the blessings of compassion and empathy and solidarity and community wherever they offer themselves to us. And the great open secret of the resurrection is that this style of risen living is actually possible, even for the sinful, fallen, fragile likes of you and me. It isn’t really as hard to do as we make it seem. Jesus lived that way by watching and working with his Father. You and I can live that way by watching and working with Jesus and the company of companions which gathers in his name.
A line from one of last week’s Daily Office readings has stayed with me for several days–it’s Paul’s assertion in 2 Corinthians 5 that “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[2 Corinthians 5.7] This is true and misleading at the same time. It’s true in the sense that we walk without knowing precisely where we will end up. But it’s misleading in that it’s not as if we don’t know what a Christian life ought to look like. We are all Jesus’s apprentices, and what churchy types these days call “formation” is really nothing more than watching and imitating Jesus while he works. The “victory” we celebrate at Easter is a victory not of power but of love. Rome thought it could kill the kind of life which Jesus and his companions represented–a life which made celebratory, compassionate abundance real even among people who were being ground under by the Empire. In raising Jesus, God has won the argument. Yes, it’s new life, but not just any kind of new life. It’s new life that looks and feels like Jesus and his life. It’s new life lived in companionship with Jesus and his Father and all the women and children and men in the world who dare to challenge and question Caesar and all human pretensions having to do with power.
John Donne was a more strict Calvinist than you and me. Even though he lived in the sacramental life of the church with all its implied assurances, part of him always asserted that old Puritan question: “How can I know I’m saved?” Donne’s poems never quite come to an assurance of salvation in the indicative mood; they come to rest, to the extent that they rest at all, in the optative [“May it be that”] mood. At the end of the meditative process they take us through, they don’t triumphantly say, “I know now for sure I’m saved.” They put it more optatively, like this: “Oh may it be that I’m saved.” So even as much as Donne believed in the Resurrection and lived his life in and through the church, there was always a part of him which knew, as Paul says, that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” The joys and obligations of the Christian life are abundantly apparent now. What they will add up to, what they will concretely mean at that last day, is anybody’s guess. And, when we’re honest about it, that is about all which any of us Christian preachers can credibly say about how things will look on the last day.
In his sonnet sequence, “La Corona”, John Donne said this about the Resurrection of Jesus and what he believed and hoped would be its implications for himself:

May then sin's sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

In that optative spirit, may you and I so serve our apprenticeship with Jesus and his Father, that when all is said and done about us the “yes” which God will say to and for us will be the same “yes” which God said to and for Jesus at the empty tomb. May we so stand with the powerless and against Caesar that Jesus and his risen life will be now and for ever “in our face”. Amen.

1 comment:

Merely Human said...

Sorry you didn't actually get to preach it, but I'm glad you posted it here so we could read it. -Lauren